3 Must-Watch Arab Movies By Female Filmmakers To Watch At The Cairo International Film Festival

BY E. Nina Rothe / Nov 19 2019 / 17:51 PM

The annual film festival returns tomorrow...

3 Must-Watch Arab Movies By Female Filmmakers To Watch At The Cairo International Film Festival
Actress Basima Hajjar and director Shahad Ameen

During a recent chat with Venice Critics’ Week’s general delegate Giona A. Nazzaro, he provided his criteria for choosing work from the Region, by paraphrasing a quote from renowned French critic Serge Danay. “He was referring to the work of the filmmakers he loved and what they did,“ Nazzaro explained to Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia back in September, “as ‘postcards from far away from people who, from time to time, check in saying hey I’m fine, this is what I’ve been up to, this is what is going on in my place, I hope you’re fine, let me know what you are up to and what you are doing’.” Nazzaro added that personally, “that’s what I’m looking for in the first place [from filmmakers], to establish a dialogue — a conversation.”

Nowhere is that conversation more visible, tangible almost, than in three new films by women filmmakers, more precisely three Arab women filmmakers. In a Region where already women auteurs are more numerous and often more successful than their male counterparts, it’s not rare to find beautiful works of art that feel like precious postcards sent to us by friends. But with the upcoming screenings of Let’s Talk, Between Heaven and Earth and Scales at the 41st Cairo International Film Festival, those postcards turn into a kind of 3D, bigger than life moving display of where these filmmakers have been — but also where Arab cinema is going. And you’ll definitely want to come along for the journey.

Let’s Talk by Marianne Khoury

Egyptian filmmaker Marianne Khoury is best known as the producer of some of her legendary uncle Youssef Chahine’s films, as well as works by Yousry Nasrallah. Yet Khoury is also the powerful voice behind some of the best documentaries made in the last years about strong, courageous women within the Arab world. In Let’s Talk, Khoury looks at her own extended family and traces the roots of Chahine’s inspiration and success through the tales of her own brothers, aunt, mother and even her daughter Sara, who studies filmmaking in Cuba. The result is a spellbinding, touching look at her very cinematic family.

Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia asked Khoury, the Arab world’s answer to Anna Magnani, if she’d always known she would eventually make this film and she answered, “for many many years I couldn’t open up the subject, with myself. It took me, after my mother passed away in ‘89, a long time. It’s only a couple of years ago that I really seriously started looking in the archives.” The spark of the idea was, Khoury answered, “my daughter, she started to trigger the film. My daughter feels extremely connected to my mother, even though she never saw her. But she looks like her, her hands, sometimes the way she talks and her reactions to things in life. She did the triggering when she started to ask questions about my mom and I saw how close she felt to her without seeing her. That was very very powerful.” Admitting that she’s always filming in her life, “I do it like I just write something,” Khoury’s family looks natural and relaxed as the subjects of her film. Mixing powerful images from her family’s archive, “my grandmother used to have the archives of the family and then I took over that when she passed away,” as Khoury admitted, Let’s Talk shares the personal side of Chahine with the legions of fans he continues to have within the Arab world, and beyond, after his death in 2008.

Khoury concluded that, “everybody knows Chahine as the ‘Big Chahine', the filmmaker, in many situations in his life, and here Chahine is portrayed very differently, in a very intimate way, among his family. He is the brother, he is the son, he is the uncle and grand-uncle — it’s another Chahine and they are not used to him like that, so I’m looking forward to seeing how people will react.”

'Let's Talk' poster

Between Heaven and Earth by Najwa Najjar

Palestinian-Jordanian filmmaker Najwa Najjar described her latest film Between Heaven and Earth as “a love story about divorce,” which, she continued, “became the journey of exploration of love under occupation, in a divided country, with two people from different divides of a country, in which politics forces on them different realities, and yet very similar realities at the same time.” For cinema lovers, who have adored her past projects Pomegranates and Myrrh and Eyes of a Thief, this latest film cannot come soon enough — five whole years after her last one. Yet Najjar described for us her process by saying, “considering the time needed to finance and the journey of each film, it’s not so bad time wise, I definitely could not do more. I do believe that the films need to breathe, and the following film needs its time to develop both mentally and emotionally, and for the characters to come alive.”

The inspiration for this latest project, Najjar disclosed, “started in a falafel shop in Haifa, when the owner told me about his son refusing a film scholarship to London because he’s one of the guardians of Iqrit.” She elaborated that “a trip to what had become this unknown Palestinian town, three kilometers away from the Lebanese border and nonexistent on Google Maps, took us ten hours to reach.” Us meaning Najjar and her husband Hani E Kort who is also a producer on all her films. So is it difficult to be partners in life and work, we ask Najjar? “If you ask him, he’ll tell you I gave him no choice,” she admitted, continuing that “he’s an engineer by profession, but a tortured producer by force.” Their secret? “Never allowing our relationship to enter the decision making when it comes to the production, script, image, edit.”

For Between Heaven and Earth, Najjar has chosen Cairo as the place to world premiere the film. “First and foremost I love CIFF and all my films have played to wonderful audiences there,” she acknowledged, but “putting that aside I have this strong belief that if we want a festival in our Region to reach its full potential, then filmmakers should have their world premieres at CIFF. Have the first buzz and word out from CIFF — we too as filmmakers can make the decisions on what are the festivals that can count and make a difference internationally.”

'Between Heaven and Earth' poster

A still from 'Between Heaven and Earth'

Scales by Shahad Ameen

A dystopian fairy tale with dark undertones, set in a not-so-distant-future when water and food are a precious commodity. That’s only the beginning of Shahad Ameen’s feature debut Scales. The Saudi filmmaker’s much talked about and multi-awarded film, which premiered in Venice Critics’ Week, also features the first Arab mermaid, a father figure whose love and support of his daughter actually ends up saving their world, and some breathtaking black and white photography — not to mention sensational performances by young Saudi actress Baseema Hajjar and renowned Palestinian thespian Ashraf Barhom.

At the upcoming gala screening of Scales in Cairo, the “50/50 by 2020” pledge for women’s equality in film will also be signed, and when we asked Ameen about the importance of the occurrence she pointed out, confidently “Scales is definitely a story of empowerment and it’s the story of the journey we go through as women to accept who we truly are, trust in our intuition and trust in ourselves.”

“Right now,” Ameen told us recently, “people are more interested in listening to women’s voices and that’s very exciting. I do feel this comes with a responsibility, being a female filmmaker from this Region, a responsibility towards your story and your characters. Towards your experience being a woman in the Region, towards how you show the experience, how you translate it to the screen, because it’s a very raw industry and it’s a very new one, so we need to be very honest with the stories we are trying to tell.”

A still from 'Scales'

Shahad Ameen, Basima Hajjar, and Ashraf Barhoum

Shahad Ameen and Basima Hajjar

The 41st Cairo International Film Festival runs from November 20th to the 29th, 2019. Find all info and films at https://www.ciff.org.eg/.